Hebrews 9:24-28 – Forgiveness Is Real

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For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (New International Version)

Jesus is the central figure of the Bible. I could preach on the finished work of Christ every Sunday and never exhaust the immensely rich implications of his death for us. 

Maybe today’s verses seem like a re-hashing of things we already know. Yet, it is important to keep plumbing the depths of Christ’s once for all sacrifice because it is through continually examining Jesus that we will experientially know our forgiveness is real. Having this reality sink deep into our souls enables us to extend forgiveness to others.

The original recipients of Hebrews were experiencing spiritual fatigue due to their difficult circumstances. The believers were so tired from swimming upstream that they considered quitting and giving up on Christianity (or at least the Church). 

The author of Hebrews truly believed that the way to combat this tiredness was through a robust understanding of Christ.  So, he sought to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to the old sacrificial system and has even superseded it. 

There are three main distinctions between the old sacrificial system and the new way of Christ. They are meant to encourage us so that we will know our forgiveness is real. This awareness will help us persevere and live for Jesus in all we say and do, until he returns.

First Distinction: Reality versus a Simulated Copy

The Old Testament sacrificial system, and its worship rituals in dealing with the sin issue, were only a copy and a shadow of the real sacrifice, which is Christ. The Temple sacrifices, in other words, were merely a facsimile of the real thing.

When my girls were small, they always enjoyed going to our local large grocery store. At that store they had a row of mechanical horses that only cost a penny to ride for one minute.  Riding the horses was always the highlight of shopping for them. Their Aunt once came for a visit and brought a coffee can full of pennies and took them to the grocery store just to ride the horses for an afternoon. 

All three of my girls are now grown adult women. They do not ride mechanical horses anymore. They now ride real live horses. My daughters, as excited as they were to ride mechanical horses as small girls, now have no desire to do so because those horses were only a simulation of the real thing.

As Christians, since Christ has come as the true and real sacrifice for sin, we are no longer to be content with simulations and copies of the real deal.  And we are to know the difference between them. Our forgiveness is neither a simulation nor a copy because Christ is the real thing. 

As my girls were growing up, my wife and I had a certain process we went through with them when they did something wrong toward one another. We would talk about the offense, and then they would need to say the words, “I am sorry.” 

However, the matter was never over until they hugged each other and told each other they loved the other. If they could do that, it was the real deal. You see, they could mouth the words to get us off their backs, but to hug and express love was the reality.

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

C.S. Lewis

Jesus did not just mouth words of forgiveness to us. He secured it through his death on a cross. It is not a cheap imitation kind of forgiveness. It is real. Christ died a violent death. The emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people.

Yet, we need to understand that the brokenness of this world is so bad that it requires drastic action. Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity. Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with great humility and joy that God loves us that much.

Second Distinction: Once versus Endless Repetition

Jesus Christ came to deal with the sin issue once for all through his blood. He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it. The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.

We are familiar with temporary arrangements. For example, annual fees need to be paid and renewal stickers have to be put on a car’s license plate every year. Christ’s atonement, however, is no temporary arrangement. The forgiveness Jesus offers is permanent. 

There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.

Author Henri Nouwen once told a story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the military regime there and its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge on him by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. Enraged townsfolk wanted to turn the boy’s funeral into a huge protest march, but the doctor chose another means of protest.

At the funeral, the father displayed his son’s body as he had found it in the jail—naked, scarred from electric shocks and cigarette burns, and beatings. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress from the prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display.

“Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not being God.”

Henri Nouwen

The cross that held Christ’s naked and marred body exposed the violence and injustice of this world. The cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, and a God of sacrificial love. Because Jesus was willing to do this on our behalf, we have forgiveness once and for all through his blood.

This world needs forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving but a real forgiveness that lasts forever. 

Third Distinction: Salvation versus Judgment

A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God. Part of the good news is that, in Christ, we do not need to fear the future.  We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus. Through Christ’s sacrifice the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open. The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth to come to God.

Jesus, unlike any Levitical priest, has entered God’s presence, providing access to the living God. Christ did not need to offer sacrifice for his own sins but offered himself solely on our behalf. Jesus did more than offer the sacrifice; he himself became the sacrifice. It was a sacrifice to bring deliverance to humanity, not judgment.

Either to justify or to judge is God’s business, not ours. Our concern is to believe in the once for all sacrifice of Jesus that brings a permanent forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, can experience deliverance from sin, death, and hell.

We can have such a hard time forgiving others because we struggle with experiencing our own forgiveness. The path to extending grace to others is in deepening our knowledge, understanding, and awareness of God’s grace in Christ.

Conclusion

The author of Hebrews meant for the Christian life to be an exciting and abundant adventure following Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation. And yet, many Christians do not know anything about this kind of life. They only see the Christian life as a duty and a chore, a kind of cross to bear. 

It is important we recognize it is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, who has delivered us so that we can live a new life of freedom enjoying our forgiveness and inviting others on the journey.

There was once an immigrant that booked passage on a ship with just enough money to buy a ticket, a block of cheese and some crackers for a long voyage. The first few days at sea the crackers and cheese tasted good, but eventually they became stale.

As he watched the porters carry large steaks, lobsters, chicken, beautiful salads and many other delicious foods to the other guests, he became so hungry that he finally stopped one of the porters. “I’II do anything to get one of those steaks,” he said. “I’II wash dishes, clean rooms, even mop the deck.” The porter replied, “You bought a ticket, didn’t you? The meals come with the ticket.”

Too many people today are cheese and cracker Christians—missing out on all of God’s steak dinners. All the resources of God are available to us, yet far too many of us live in self-imposed spiritual poverty. 

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14, NIV)

Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives. He has granted us forgiveness so that we will eagerly enjoy the Word of God; enjoy laboring together in the Gospel; and look forward to how the Spirit will transform lives through Christ’s forgiveness. 

Real forgiveness opens our minds, hearts, and our energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation.

Hebrews 9:11-14 – A Clear Conscience

Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

When the Messiah arrived, high priest of the superior things of this new covenant, he bypassed the old tent and its trappings in this created world and went straight into heaven’s “tent”—the true Holy Place—once and for all. He also bypassed the sacrifices consisting of goat and calf blood, instead using his own blood as the price to set us free once and for all. If that animal blood and the other rituals of purification were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out. Through the Spirit, Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God. (The Message)

We all have times when we feel guilty. Guilt, in and of itself, is a good thing. Guilt is the response of our conscience telling us we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done. It’s what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. There are several ways we can respond to guilt.

  1. Denial. We can deny and rationalize our guilt by not accepting the truth about what we have done. Using phrases such as, “It’s not my fault,” “It’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “They deserved it,” and “It’s not that bad,” has the effect of searing our conscience like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty. The inevitable result of this is hardness of heart.
  2. Shame. Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed. Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done. Shame, however, feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good. Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences. In other words, shame is really false guilt.
  3. Inaction. Shame and false guilt may result in despair. We become inactive because of feeling discouraged or defeated. We might reason to ourselves, “What’s the point? I screw up everything I do.” So, we do nothing.
  4. Hyperactive. Some folks become a flurry of activity, working like crazy to feel better in the hope that guilt and shame disappear. It is to impose a penance upon yourself to try and cope with the icky feeling of guilt.

            The good news is that we can experience freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.

  • If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.
  • If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and the guilt on our consciences. 
  • If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt and shame.

            There are three reasons from Hebrews which tell us why we can have freedom from guilt and live with a clear conscience. They all focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood.

Under the old sacrificial system, year after year, the priest offered the same sacrifices which never took away sin. The animal sacrifice was an act of worship in which the worshiper acknowledged guilt before God. The continuous ritual was designed to point forward to a better sacrifice.

The worshiper was purposely led to think, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do this all the time?” The blood of bulls and goats were an annual reminder of sins – such sacrifices never cleansed the conscience of the worshiper. Jesus Christ, however, is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus has secured, once and for all, our eternal redemption through his own blood.

The death of Christ, Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

Dr. Samuel Weinstein is the chief pediatric cardiac surgeon for a children’s hospital in the New York City. He once traveled to El Salvador to provide life-saving operations for less-fortunate children. Dr. Weinstein and his team operated on an eight year old boy. Twelve hours into the surgery, the procedure took a deadly turn.  

Dr. Weinstein said, “The surgery had been going well, but he was bleeding a lot and there were not many medicines we would use to stop the bleeding. After a while, they said they couldn’t give him blood because they were running out and he had a rare type.” The boy’s blood type was B-negative, which is present in only two percent of the population.

The only other person in the room with a blood type of B-negative was Dr. Weinstein. Immediately knowing what he had to do, he stepped down from the operating table. As his colleagues continued their work, Dr. Weinstein set aside his scalpel, took off his gloves, and began washing his hands and forearm. Then, in the corner of an unfamiliar operating room, the prestigious doctor from one of the most advanced hospitals in the world sat down to give away his own blood. 

When he had given his pint, Dr. Weinstein drank some bottled water and ate a Pop-Tart. Then—twenty minutes after stepping away from the table—he rejoined his colleagues. After watching his own blood circulating into the boy’s small veins, Dr. Weinstein completed the operation that saved the boy’s heart—and his life.

It is the blood of Jesus Christ which saves us from sin, death, and hell. Our condition is so dire that we can do nothing other than let Jesus deliver us. By faith, we trust Jesus to secure a new life for us free from guilt and shame.

Christ cleanses our consciences.

For some, the greatest prison is not tangible or physical – it is the prison of conscience bound and wracked by guilt and shame. Yet, Jesus has taken care of the problem of a guilty conscience once for all through his blood. Forgiveness comes through Jesus. Christ cleanses us from the inside-out and frees us from being slaves to our guilt.

In 1811, the U.S. government began collecting and storing letters like the following note dated from February 6, 1974: “I am sending ten dollars for blankets I stole while in World War II. My mind could not rest. Sorry I’m late.” It was signed by an ex-GI. And there was this postscript: “I want to be ready to meet with God.”  The U.S. government not only collects and stores these letters, but the Treasury Department established a fund and labeled it the “Conscience Fund.” Since its inception, the fund has grown to almost seven million dollars.

A clear conscience is worth a lot. If we try and impose penance upon ourselves, how do we know when it’s enough? In Christ, we are not just outwardly clean, but inwardly clean because of his finished work on the cross. 

Accepting this reality, through God’s eternal Spirit, helps us experience forgiveness and cleansing. The Holy Spirit takes the redemptive events of Jesus and applies them to our consciences so that we are assured of forgiveness.

Christ sanctifies our service.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest entered the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifices. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the priest entered the Most Holy Place. He slaughtered a heifer, took some blood, and sprinkled it on the altar. 

The priest had bells on his ankles when performing this ritual, along with a rope tied to one ankle. In case the judgment of God broke out on the priest and he was killed, then the other priests could reel him out of the Most Holy Place without entering themselves and being killed, as well.

There were several rituals to perform to access God. And, even then, the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people. But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom. The way has been opened for complete purification, inside and out, a cleansing of the guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.

Since Christ has obtained redemption for us by his blood, cleansed our consciences, and sanctified our service, here’s how we can live into his finished work:

  • Confess and forsake known sin.

Those who hide their sins won’t succeed [shame] but those who confess and give them up will receive mercy. (Proverbs 28:13, CEB)

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done. (1 John 1:9, ERV)

  • Ask forgiveness and be reconciled to anyone you have wronged. 

Jesus said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember there that another believer has something against you, leave your gift at the altar. First go away and make peace with that person. Then come back and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24, GW)

  • Make restitution to those you have wronged. 

If any of you commit a crime against someone, you have sinned against me [God]. You must confess your guilt and pay the victim in full for whatever damage has been done, plus a fine of twenty percent. (Numbers 5:6-7, CEV)

  • Don’t procrastinate in clearing your wounded conscience.

Paul said he did his best to keep his conscience clear before God and others (Acts 24:16). Some people put off dealing with their guilt, believing their conscience will clear itself in time – but it will not. Procrastination only allows the guilt feelings to fester. Unchecked guilt eventually turns to shame. Today is the day to deal with guilt.

God forgives, not because of the quality of our prayers, but on the basis of Christ’s blood. We can now take advantage of our wonderful situation of freedom to serve the church and the world because God is bigger than a guilty conscience.

Hebrews 7:23-28 – Jesus Is Better

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (New International Version)

Several years ago, I enjoyed serving communion with a retired minister in the church for which I was serving at the time. When we were in the middle of it, I leaned over to him and gave him a bit of instruction on what we were about to do. After I finished, he leaned over to me with a smile and said, “I didn’t hear a thing you just said, but I’ll figure it out!”

When it comes to the Christian life, I think we can learn something from the old Pastor. We are neither always going to hear well everything which is in the Bible, nor are we going to understand everything which is happening around us as Christians. 

The Jewish Christians, for which the book of Hebrews was originally preached, had a difficult transition from Judaism to Christianity. In Judaism, they knew what was happening. The sacrificial system was detailed and meticulously planned. The priesthood was clearly observed with men from the tribe of Levi. Worship was predictable.

However, becoming a Christian changed a lot of things. Being a Christian meant relying on the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God. There was no longer a tangible sacrificial system. Jesus is the high priest, but the believers never see him. 

There was so much living by faith, and so little understanding of what was going to happen, that the Hebrew Christians’ resolve began to break down. They became discouraged and started to lose patience with Christianity.

“The Painter and the Christ” by Marc Chagall, 1975

Today’s New Testament lesson is in the middle of an extended discussion by the author of Hebrews about the priesthood and sacrificial system. The Christian Jews were thinking about reneging on their commitment to Jesus and returning to their previous way of life in Judaism. 

So, central to the author’s exhortation is to demonstrate that Jesus is superior to everything in Judaism. Jesus is better than any Old Testament priest. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins. Jesus is better because his priesthood is permanent, and his sacrifice is perfect.

In the ancient world, sacrifice was at the center of everyone’s belief system. Every pagan religion had some sort of sacrificial practice to satisfy the god(s) and ensure deliverance and/or prosperity. Jews, of course, had an elaborate sacrificial system of their own with detailed prescriptions of how to go about it.

We need to feel something of the original force of Christianity. It was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Everyone understood that sacrifices were temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again. Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice. No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no physical sacrifices whatsoever. 

In Christianity, Jesus as the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices was such a crazy notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it. Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a progressive idea. It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because some individual became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

“The Martyr” by Marc Chagall, 1970

All the things the old sacrificial system did for worshipers are now completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Condensed in just a few verses of Scripture, we have a very rich picture of Jesus:

  • Jesus is not a temporary priest, but a permanent priest, the one who is able to intercede continually on our behalf without us having to perform a ritual sacrifice.
  • Jesus lives forever, which enables him to never cease his intercessory work.
  • Jesus saves completely.
  • Jesus meets our need.
  • Jesus has been made perfect forever.

Yet, sometimes Christians go back to the old sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true. We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves. Although Jesus has saved us fully, and therefore, there is no longer any need for sacrifice, yet we still try:

  • To appease God through church attendance or other works, as if the Lord needs to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.
  • To satisfy God through our giving so that the Lord will not have a furrowed brow against us.
  • To assuage our guilty conscience through Christian service, believing this will give us some leverage with God.

In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.

Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin. Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace. That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice. 

There is no longer ever a situation where we must run to some spiritual liquor store to pick up a Captain Morgan because the Captain of our souls, Jesus Christ, has already given us everything we need.

Since Jesus has been made perfect forever; is our great high priest; and is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we have all the grace we need. 

We need not worry anymore about being good enough because Jesus is perfect. Christ’s work is made complete in us. The constant anxiety of feeling we don’t measure-up is not from God. The person and work of Jesus is sufficient to deliver us from guilt and shame.

“Well,” you might say, “if everybody believed that, then nobody would ever do anything.” No, it’s just the opposite. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more. A low level discouragement sets in, and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough. We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything. 

“Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall, 1961

Just like the Hebrew Christians of the first century, we consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us. Yet, when we grasp Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips. 

It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

The old system wasn’t bad. It served a purpose. Now, however, the old has given way to the new, and there is a better hope by which we draw near to God. The sacrificial system pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice by a permanent priest that would bring us to God forever.

Going back to the old system is like living permanently in a tent, and believing you are home.

Therefore, we must choose what is better. The options are not so much between what is bad and what is good, but between what is good and what is better than good. It is possible to do all kinds of good things and miss the better thing God is doing. 

So, how do we choose the better thing? How do we embrace the new, which is Christ, and not the old, which is the sacrificial system?

  1. Learn to say “no” to the treadmill going nowhere. Since we do not need to impress God, we have the freedom to say “no” to keeping up with the spiritual Jones’s; “no” to cajoling God’s favor, approval, or attention.
  2. Learn to say “yes” to engaging in spiritual practices which remind us of Christ. Say “yes” to the new way of the Spirit, which is by faith and not by sight. This present spiritual age is often intangible, ethereal, and unseen. It requires a new set of spiritual eyes to see.
  3. Let Christianity be about Jesus, and not about us. Resist the allure to rescue others, or have others rescue you. The work of rescue has already been done. Christ saves, we don’t.
  4. Know the better thing over the good thing. Pause before acting or re-acting. Are we expecting someone else to do what Christ has already done? Are we looking to do something we think will make God like us better? Remind yourself of Jesus and his redemption every day in small ways through Scripture reading and prayer, fellowship, and loving service.

Good people can love God, and yet, miss the opportunity to see they are already justified through Christ’s blood. We do not need to justify ourselves. We need to live into the justification we possess by grace through faith.

May it be so to the glory of God.